Nigel Watson. UFOs of the First World War: Phantom Airships, Balloons, Aircraft and Other Mysterious Aerial Phenomena. History Press, 2015.

As any UFO historian knows, phantom airships were haunting our skies well before the First World War. The Great 1897 Airship Wave in the US is well documented and speculated upon, less familiar is the smaller wave of 1908. The Danish airship sightings in the same year are less well known, as are the Swedish sightings from the following year. Certainly in 1897 the ‘airship’ was a semi-mythical concept to most people, and almost any anomalous observation could be attributed to it.

The jury is still out on whether any of the 1897 American airship reports were actually observations of real airships, but the idea that an unidentified aerial object or light might be a real airship from a foreign, and probably unfriendly, power was a very definite possibly across Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century.

As an island nation, Great Britain has historically felt itself safe from, and paradoxically vulnerable to, foreign invasion, and in the period before the First World War this was a preoccupation that was encouraged through alarmist novels and political propaganda. Writers such as William Le Queux, author of The Great War in England in 1897, which described a French and Russian invasion, and The Invasion of 1910, proposing a rather more plausible German invasion, helped build an atmosphere of apprehension.

Britain’s presumed vulnerability increased with the growth of military aviation and the English Channel could no longer be seen as “a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands”. A number of military pundits and aviators were urging the Government to take preventative action against possible aerial attack in the early years of the century. This book reproduces a page from an article in The Strand magazine of July 1911, by the pioneer aviator Claude Graham-White, pointing out that now “a man whirls through the air at sixty-three miles an hour, lunching in London and having tea in Paris” and that “there is a danger in England’s apathy” about the threats on aerial warfare.

The first big British airship scare started in 1909. The sighting by Constable Kettle of the Peterborough police was one of the first, and has appeared in many UFO books, along with a rather imaginative illustration from the local newspaper, as a proto-UFO. But reports soon followed from around East Anglia and the coastal areas of Essex and Kent, which would have been plausible areas for an enemy, particularly German, air fleet to invade.

But the idea of flying Teutonic invaders seems less plausible as reports appeared from areas as far to the west as South Wales (the famous Lethbridge incident) and as far north as Belfast.

Even less likely was the idea of a German invasion of New Zealand, but that nation was also subject to a phantom invasion in 1909, which involved reports of crashed airships, Japanese pilots, German-speaking occupants, and even secret crash-retrieval operations and a Government cover-up.

There was a second British scare in 1913, when the threat of German aggression was growing, which led to questions in Parliament, and rumours of arms and ammunition stockpiled by German sympathisers in London - mainly it would seem by waiters in Soho restaurants.

As the Great War drew closer in the early months of 1914 reports of sightings of airships and heavier-than-air vehicles spread across the whole of the country, and from some of the accounts gathered in this book it seems likely that a number of them were reports of actual foreign aircraft. But even so, the great majority of them seemed to have been classic ‘misinterpretations of natural phenomena.’ I’m amused to see that Merseyside’s reputation for ufological scepticism was foreshadowed by a report from the Headquarters of the Mersey Defences, Liverpool, by a certain Major de Wattevill who dismissed the reports:
“The airship scare continued harmlessly. The Chief Constable of Lancashire is clean off his head over them. He has enlisted 20,000 special PCs for the war and they have to earn their living. I am convinced that Barrow is cracked on the subject. There are so many iron foundries in Furness that at night the glare of the smoke in the sky are enough to create airships whenever the wind and clouds are right”
Fifty years later he could have been writing for the Merseyside UFO Bulletin!

As the War drew on there were indeed real airships flying across the English coastline delivering death and destruction: the book shows pictures of the first aerial attacks on British soil at Great Yarmouth in January 1915. Now false airship reports became a matter of concern to the authorities, as they could detract attention from the genuine threats. This led to prosecutions for spreading such rumours. However in some cases rewards were also offered for exposing the non-existent secret locations from where a supposed fifth column was launching the airships.

The rumours and sightings were not confined to Britain. Airship stories returned to the USA, and were introduced into Canada, where they were dubbed ‘scareoplanes’ and on one occasion led to a complete blackout of Ottawa. Here they were blamed on German sympathisers in the US or planes launched from German warships in the Atlantic. South Africa was also troubled by the phantoms, supposedly launched from German-controlled South West Africa.

Nigel Watson points out that all of the characteristics of the phantom airships were replicated in the post-WWII saucer scare, and many of the same culprits were identified: kites, Chinese lanterns, searchlights, astronomical objects particularly Venus and a variety of meteorological effects. It’s revealing to look at the details of some of the cases described and guess how a present day ufologist would analyse them. Quite a few of them involved lights in the sky hanging round for an hour or more - spies carefully studying the lie of the land, or an astronomical cause?

War is a great generator of rumour, and in times of war people are more inclined to believe any information, however unreliable, that they receive. Besides the aerial phenomena we have rumours of invading, or relieving, armies - Russians with snow on their boots - or support from the supernatural - the Angels of Mons. There are reports of phantom aviators on both sides of the conflict performing feats of bravery to avenge the death of a loved one.

The research into original sources in this book is impressive, but Nigel has been researching this topic since his first published pieces in MUFOB back in the 1970s, and this book displays just a selection of the data he has amassed. But more importantly than being just a collection of ‘sighting reports’ it is an description of how the social and political background to our lives can determine the way in which we perceive and react to such data. -- John Rimmer.

Read Nigel's airship articles in MUFOB and Magonia:

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